PROVIDENCE — Housing Secretary Joshua D. Saal submitted his resignation to Governor Dan McKee on Wednesday, after months of criticism over the state’s response to housing and homelessness.
“Governor McKee has accepted the resignation of Housing Secretary Josh Saal,” said McKee spokesman Matthew Sheaff.
Saal will remain in the role for “a short transition period,” said Sheaff. According to Saal’s resignation letter, his resignation is effective “two weeks from today” and he will “make myself available for a period of up to 90 days.”
“One thing we can all agree upon is that one person alone was never going [to] be able to solve a housing crisis that has been developing for decades,” Saal wrote in his resignation. “The work is difficult, complex, and often messy. However, I am confident that under this Administration, Rhode Island is up for the challenge.”
McKee was concerned about “several issues” with the housing secretary, including a lack of communication and the incomplete reports recently submitted to the General Assembly, according to sources in the Governor’s office. He began losing confidence in Saal and started working on a plan to stabilize the department “in the last few days.”
Saal, who has worked for the state since January 2022, was elevated to the cabinet-level position when it was created in July 2022.
“We thank Secretary Saal for his work over the past year and look forward to building a Department of Housing that is innovative and responsive to the gravity this moment requires,” said Sheaff in a statement.
Saal did not have a formal written contract with the state, the Globe found via a public records request.
After a commission meeting involving housing concluded on Tuesday afternoon, Saal was asked to comment on recent criticism he has received from state lawmakers.
“I will be meeting with the Speaker and I am confident that the work we will continue to do will actually make meaningful change in the people that need it the most as opposed to whoever is speaking in the media or other things,” said Saal.
Saal declined to say when that meeting would take place and repeatedly refused to answer additional questions from the Globe. A staff member in Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi’s office told the Globe that a meeting had not been scheduled with Saal. Hours later, Saal, who reports directly to the governor, was asked by the governor’s office to step down.
Former commerce secretary Stefan Pryor may be appointed to take over as interim housing secretary, according to sources with knowledge on the matter, though plans are not yet final.
Pryor resigned as commerce secretary in mid-June 2022 to focus on his campaign for state treasurer, which he lost to former Central Falls mayor James Diossa.
Saal worked under Pryor for several months as the deputy secretary of commerce for housing before a statute introduced by House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, made the housing secretary a cabinet-level position. Saal became the housing secretary in July 2022 and was immediately tasked with developing a department organizational plan (due Nov. 1, 2022), an integrated housing report (due Dec. 31, 2022), and a statewide housing plan, which Saal originally told the Globe would come out in “early 2023.”
After asking for a deadline extension, which was granted, Saal submitted a 22-page departmental organizational plan on Nov. 17, 2022. It was missing the required input from fellow agencies, departments, commissioners, and boards.
Saal submitted the integrated housing report to the General Assembly on Jan. 5, without requesting a deadline extension. The report, which was made public, had numerous errors and was missing key information, such as his required recommendations, as well as critical data about several aspects of the state’s housing crisis. Shekarchi, through his spokesman, told the Globe that he was “disappointed” in Saal’s housing report and at first glance, it “did not appear to be compliant with the statute.”
“I am disappointed by the lack of progress that was made under Secretary Saal’s leadership and the inadequate reports he recently submitted to the legislature,” Shekarchi said in a statement after Saal’s resignation. “The General Assembly committed unprecedented resources to address affordable housing and homelessness in the last two budgets, and there has been very little funding spent so far. We need immediate production and I look forward to working with Governor McKee and a new secretary.”
House Minority Leader Michael W. Chippendale said Saal’s resignation did not come as a surprise and was “appropriate given the revelations of the past few weeks.”
Saal’s resignation “has definitely driven home the need to have an experienced professional in the housing secretary role – someone who understands the unique needs and landscape of Rhode Island,” said Chippendale. “Rhode Island’s critical affordable housing shortage is worthy of a leader who can make an immediate impact forging alliance with the various support organizations across the state and building consensus for a thoughtful plan of action.”
In a written statement sent by his spokesman Chris Raia last week, Saal said he took full responsibilities for missing deadlines. He also said the housing department was “new and short-staffed.”
On Dec. 29, 2022, Saal issued a request for proposals for a contractor to help put the statewide housing plan together. According to the request, the consultant that would eventually be hired would be tasked with “finalizing the work plan” for the creation of the housing plan. In an interview with the Globe earlier that month, Saal indicated that he may try to avoid holding a public commenting period while developing the statewide plan, even though the plan would likely impact all cities and towns in Rhode Island.
“I’ve found with different voices in the room that sometimes we don’t always agree,” said Saal. “For something this big, with so many people, then you get 1,000 voices and you get a plan with 1,000 points. That actually doesn’t do anything to get us to the hard decisions that we need to make.”
Before joining the commerce department in January 2022, Saal worked as a deputy director handling pre-development contracts in New York City. He earned a bachelor’s degree in urban planning from Brown University in 2009.
Saal has said he got his start in housing while volunteering at the Housing Action Coalition of Rhode Island when he was still a student at Brown. A former employee of the now-defunct nonprofit, who asked to remain anonymous because they still work in the housing industry and rely on some state funding, said Saal was one of many interns who knocked on doors as a part of the coalition’s outreach, informing homeowners who received a foreclosure notice of their next steps.
Saal was vetted for the deputy commerce secretary job by a small hiring committee made up of local affordable housing developers and leaders in the industry. At least one local candidate also applied for the job, but they did not receive an interview, according to those familiar with the hiring process, who said that Saal received glowing recommendations from New York City.
Ahmed Tigani, the first deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing preservation and development, oversaw Saal’s former unit. Tigani told the Globe in a statement that Saal had a “direct impact” in growing the city’s affordable housing stock, which included coordinating across agencies and being “one of the people laying the groundwork for nearly 8,000 affordable homes to be built across the city.”
“From our experience together, his commitment to delivering housing for those who need it is irrefutable,” said Tigani.
The Rhode Island Senate Finance Committee is expected to scrutinize the administration’s spending related to housing on Thursday. The Committee, chaired by Senator Louis P. DiPalma, was expected to call on Saal to provide an update on how his office had been spending the millions that have been dedicated to housing, and to explain what challenges the state has faced in administering appropriations. Saal is also scheduled to testify before the low and moderate income housing commission chaired by Representative June Speakman on Jan. 24
Saal is on the board of commissioners of Rhode Island Housing, a quasi-public agency that provides rental assistance and programs for those in low-income housing. Since he serves as a public member, not as the housing secretary, it is unclear if he will step down from the board.
Read his resignation letter below.
This story has been updated to include details from the former housing secretary’s resignation letter, the letter itself, and statements from the House Speaker and the House Minority Leader.